When I was law student at Makerere, there are senior lawyers who inspired me a great deal because of the incredible work they were doing around human rights advocacy and litigation.These included Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, Owek. David Mpanga, Hon Medard Segona, Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, Nicholas Opio, Irene Ovonji-Odida among others.
These men and women were always in and out of courts defending political activists, prisoners of conscience, marginalised people, etc. You switched on the TV every evening and you were sure to see at least one of them involved with some human rights case. They took the candle from those who came before them and did a lot of work amidst incredible difficulties. Because of their work, some repressive laws were nullified, prisoners released and several victims recompensed. My decision to study human rights and constitutional law was in part influenced by these senior advocates, whose work continues to shape the narrative around basic rights and freedoms.
When I started teaching law, I realised that fewer law students and lawyers want to get involved with human rights practice. Firstly, it is not as lucrative as other fields of law. A transactional lawyer will earn from a single transaction what a human rights lawyer will not earn all her life. In most cases, you are representing the poor and vulnerable who will often times ask the lawyer for transport back home after a court session. Secondly, human rights practice in a country like ours comes with its own dangers and challenges. Like their victims, human rights defenders are prone to physical attacks, persecution and victimisation. Those who choose that path do so out of a deep conviction.
So today I want to celebrate the younger breed of lawyers who are now making their mark on our country with regard to human rights advocacy, at a time when the situation has become much more complicated. These are just a few of them, but I know there are many others out there who wake up every day to make sure that there is greater respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Amidst great dangers and not earning much or anything at all from this work, these lawyers spend countless hours drafting documents, studying precedents and moving from court to court to get justice for the poor and vulnerable. Many of them offer pro-bono services to victims of torture and state repression. Aside from personal threats, their work can be very discouraging and demoralising.
Imagine a lawyer who is denied access to his or her clients for weeks and months. Imagine a lawyer who has to appear before the military courts where the law means nothing to those who preside over those courts. Yet, they do not give up even in this situation.
So here is to you comrades Wameli Anthony, Katana Benjamin, Shamim Malende, Geoffrey Turyamusiima, Eron Kiiza, George Musisi and all the other human rights lawyers in Uganda. Your work may not earn much in terms of material gain, but it much more fulfilling than anything else. May God bless you and grant you the courage and fortitude to carry on.